Transformation of our 911 equipment and communications system can only happen if lawmakers don’t siphon off funds for other needs.

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ONE of the worst things government can do is bait and switch. This is the case with tax funds being collected from everyone’s phone bill, both landline and cellular, to fund improvements to Washington state’s 911 systems. These are systems that are counted on by citizens when they need to summon emergency services from police, fire or emergency medical services.

In the early 1990s, a tax was established to fund equipment services to support city and county 911 systems. Later, this tax was broadened to cover cellphones, which dominate our personal communications. Today, approximately 70 percent of all calls to 911 come from cellphones.

Over time, those 25 cents collected from every phone bill in Washington state have added up to millions of dollars. This is money that is deposited in what is supposed to be a dedicated fund for 911 purposes. Previous actions by the Washington state Legislature have raided the state 911 fund. This taking of dedicated funds is similar to behaviors toward lottery revenues. Lottery funds, intended for education, repeatedly have been tapped for general-fund obligations.

What has happened in the past is that these 911 funds have been a lucrative target for budgeteers and legislators looking to fix holes in the state finances. Thus, 911 funds have already had millions of dollars raided from them in the past. I suspect that with the state Supreme Court’s mandate on better funding K-12 education, these dedicated 911 funds may once again be eyed to help fill a mega budget hole.

Eric Holdeman is the former director of King County Office of Emergency Management and was responsible for the administration of 911 funds.
Eric Holdeman is the former director of King County Office of Emergency Management and was responsible for the administration of 911 funds.

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Meanwhile, there is a communications revolution ongoing on how we as a modern society communicate. There is a national goal of establishing what is being called a “next generation” 911 system. The objective of which is to keep up with the consumer digital revolution and allow people to use all the digital tools they have available now to request assistance from first responders.

Examples of emerging next generation data include: video from cameras pre-positioned in static locations throughout a jurisdiction (for traffic, surveillance or investigative purposes); dynamic video capture from moving video cameras (attached to vehicles or officers); Web-based telephone alternatives that use Internet protocol-based applications; map-based applications wherein residents may report problems and issues during an emergency; crowdsourced images and videos of both disaster and criminal activity; and automatic notification of 911 when a car’s air-bag deployment happens.

None of the above would occur without a radical transformation of our existing 911 equipment and communications systems. This complex transformation in the technology currently being used would require tens of millions of dollars in funding. Wisely, those funds are being collected and set aside for these types of purposes.

While the existing pot of 911 funds makes an inviting target, legislative actions that rob those funds are going to have lifesaving implications in the future. State senators and representatives need to be accountable for the wise use of public-safety funds. This means keeping their hands off of the 911 assets being accumulated for needed improvements to the statewide system.

A former Pennsylvania mayor once remarked, “There are two great lies that politicians make: One is that you can have good schools and safe streets. The other is that no one has to pay for them.” Taking 911 funds may seem like a good short-term alternative, but it is a shortsighted solution to a long-term issue.